di Piergiorgio Odifreddi
Since artists and scientists have and offer complimentary visions of the world, it is hardly surprising that when they observe each other’s work, they end up concentrating on those aspects that are most familiar to them.
Those aspects, namely, that are situated in that area in which their own visual field intersects with that of the other person’s, receiving light from those two distant, but convergent points of iilumination. A mathematician who looks at a painting by Ravà, in particular, will be immediately attracted and distracted by the profusion of digits and numbers, and will be drawn to search for the message that lies behind these numbers in Ravà’s works.
This is not the first time that art offers images of the world that are compatible with scientific theories. Think for example of geometric design, which incarnated the Galilean vision of nature as a book written in a language using polygons and circles as letters, and the classical instruments of Euclidean geometry – the ruler and the compass – as its pens. 0 to perspective and anamorphosis, which have codified the rules to reproduce an image of reality on canvas that matches our physiological vision. 0 to pointillism, which has illustrated atomism in the most convincing manner, showing the genesis of continuous forms from discrete units.
The world shown to us by Ravà, however, is the pythagorical one, the essence of which can best be synthesised in the motto: “everything is number”. Pythagoras arrived at this courageous intuition by the temerarious generalisation of a limited discovery: that certain harmonious relationships (octave, fifth and fourth) can be expressed by means of numerical ratios (2:1, 3:2 and 4:3). To believe, on the basis of such limited evidence, that all our knowledge of the physical world could be reduced to similar relationships was unjustified and turned out to be unjustifiable. Indeed Pythagoras’ belief was almost immediately disproved by the discovery that the geometrical relationship between the side and diagonal of a square could not be expressed as a numerical ratio.
The defeat of Pythagoreanism led to a centuries-long dominance of geometry as the language with which to describe the universe, culminating in the science of Galileo and perspective art. The seed for the rebirth was lain by Descartes, who reduced geometric points to their co-ordinates: measured, however, no longer by the whole numbers of the ancients, but by the real numbers of modernity. In order to turn full circle ana y: back to Pythagoras, one more step was necessary: a step that was taken at the end of the 19th century: the further reduction of real numbers to infinite series: whole numbers. Shortly afterwards, at the beginning of the 20th century, physics too rediscovered whole numbers with the revolution of quanta and the discretization of every possible quantity energy with Planck, light with Einstein, the orbits of electrons with Bohr, …
Today Pythagoras has been (re-)avenged: both nature and its mathematical description are now considered emanations of whole numbers, and any art that wishes to be sincere must testify to the arithmetical truth of the universe. Firstly, by using numbers as artistic objects something that has been attempted, albeit rather timidly, by Giacomo Balla, Charles Demutt. Ertè, Jasper
Johns, Ugo Nespolo, … But, above all, by representing the world in its true numerical essence: something that until now only Tobia Ravà has wanted, been able and known how to do.
In his paintings nature can finally be grasped as it must be in its very essence something that can be reduced to an array of coloured numbers that combine with one another in an infinite variety – authentic Pythagorical atoms – to form the sky, water, land, plants, rivers, roads, homes, …
There are, however, no birds, animais or tish, for the simple reason that this is explicitly forbidden by the second commandment: “You shall not make for yourself an idol, whether in the form of anything that is in heaven above, or that is on the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus, XX, 3-6; Deuteronomy, V, 7-10), The fact that Western religious art has blatantly ignored the very word of God is a separate issue, which does however make one wonder as to the truthfulness of its inspiration. More in line with the teachings of the Bible, Ravà allows the religiousness to energe in his sporadic use of the letters of sacred alphabets (for example, his quoting in Sanskrit and Hebrew of the Hindu ohm in his work The value of breathing).
The fact that the word has been considered a substitute for numbers in the founding ot the universe is shown by various cosmogonies, from the Egyptian Shabaka Stone to the Maya Popul Vuh. The West usually bases its approach on the Gospel according to John, though breaking the circularity of the original in the translation, which reads: “in the beginning was the Word…”. The distinction between linguistics and arithmetic was not particularly clear among the Greeks. The word logos, besides meaning word and reason, also meant numerical ratio. Yet, the Greeks did not have specific symbols for numbers and so the letters of the alphabet were used for this purpose too. It would not have seemed incompatible to them, therefore, to base their world on either words or numbers.
In Ravà’s work these two foundations are mediated by the Hebrew tradition of the gematria, which systematically assigns numerical values to the letters ot the alphabet and vice versa, thereby establishing a relationship between words and numbers that can be used like a machine to generate meaning. The numbers that can be seen in Rava’s paintings have not been put there at random, merely to add a bit of “colour”. They are there are to be read, interpreted and understood.
In order to understand these numbers, we must proceed in opposite, yet convergent directions. We must pay attention not to the single digits, but to the numbers they make up, just as we read the words and not the letters that make up a text. We must try and translate these numbers into concepts on the basis of the hidden equivalences of the gematria. At the same time, we must also pay attention to the visual elements of the painting, and try and translate these into numbers in line with the opposite equivalences. The point at which these two processes meet is where we can find the hidden meaning of Ravà’s works, and where we will see numbers that at first sight seemed inanimate and purely decorative live an independent life.
All this may seem rather complicated, but this is precisely how the world and science are. It is possible to enjoy Rava’s works without going any deeper, enjoying their highly enjoyable superficial aspects, from the colours to the shapes. But this would be an offence to these works, depriving them of the substance that has generated them and feeds them.
Substance which, in line with the ancient and yet modern tradition of Pythagoras, consists in the intelligible rationality of what is created. One of Rava’s merits – by no means the least important – is to have succeeded in communicating this substance using the instruments of art that one can see with one’s eyes, illustrating in this way the science that can only be imagined with the mind.
di Piergiorgio Odifreddi